6 things from this week’s south Forsyth town hall
A town hall on Thursday featuring elected officials representing south Forsyth County covered everything from local yield signs to federal abortion laws.
Thursday’s town hall was held at Lambert High School and featured U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, state Sen. Greg Dolezal, state Rep. Todd Jones, Sheriff Ron Freeman, Forsyth County Commissioners Dennis Brown and Chairwoman Laura Semanson and Forsyth County Board of Education Chairwoman Kristin Morrissey. The commons at the school was standing room only, and officials estimated more than 400 residents were in attendance.
Below are a few of the topics that came up during the meeting.
One of the most contentious parts of the evening dealt with abortion laws being considered in the Georgia General Assembly, particularly HB 141, also known as Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act, which would “provide for advising women seeking an abortion of the presence of a human heartbeat” and states “the full value of a child begins at the first detection of a human heartbeat in the womb in the cases of a homicide of a child.”
“The bill is essentially what legal scholars would call a personhood bill,” Dolezal said. “The question really becomes for most people – not for everybody, but for most people – is where do you believe life begins and at what point do you believe that life has constitutional protection.”
Dolezal said it was his belief that life begins at conception, which earned an applause from much of the crowd.
Jones said he agreed with Dolezal’s statements and, as he ran on a pro-life platform, said he felt like he was representing his constituents. Both lawmakers said the issue is emotionally charged on both sides but they had had reasonable conversations with those they disagreed with.
“Clearly, the people that I represent feel that is a position they want me to maintain,” Jones said. “That being said, I’m going to reiterate what you said, Greg, I appreciate the candor that I’ve had in terms of conversation with folks with different opinions.”
While the majority of the room seemed to agree with Dolezal and Jones, there was a vocal contingent who were opposed and held signs with messages, such as “No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body,” “trust women” and “Kill Bill 481,” and one activist dressed as a character from the web television series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has become a popular pro-choice protest.
After getting a question on school safety, Morrissey said the system formed a safety task force about a year ago with the sheriff’s office and emergency medical services.
“They analyzed all of our schools to see what their needs were, and that’s one of the reasons we changed the previous bond from $2 million to $7 million to upgrade our schools,” she said. “Since then, the legislature is now promising $30,000 per school.”
Freeman said part of the $30,000 was used for a recent active-shooter training at Riverwatch Middle School.
“It involved about 100 firefighters and sheriff’s deputies,” he said. “One of the things we realized is school construction with a school like this inhibits our ability to communicate via radio and cell phones.”
Freeman said funds could go to a radio amplification system for the schools to remedy the problem, and about $4 million was budgeted every year for school resource officers.
Another positive change, Freeman and Morrissey each said, was a see-something, say-something policy.
“Since the tragedy of Parkland High School, that system, see-something, say-something, and all those tips have led to 37 tips the sheriff’s office, along with school safety, have investigated,” Freeman said. “Thirty-seven potential threats, 37 things that we need to look at. That tells me the system is working.”
When it came to most issues, officials tended to have similar beliefs. An exception came during a question relating to SB 173, which had some disagreement between Dolezal and Morrissey.
SB173 was sponsored by Dolezal and sought to establish an “educational scholarship fund” made up “of state funds deposited on behalf of participating students” wanting to continue their education outside of a public school.
The bill fell short of passing in a 25-28 vote earlier this month.
On Thursday, Dolezal said while the public school system in Forsyth County is known for its success, that isn’t the case statewide.
“The reality is for a certain number of students – we don’t know the percentage – their school doesn’t work for them. That’s undeniable,” he said. “The question then becomes, ‘What do you do with students who are in the schools that are not the best fit for them?’ Educational savings accounts, through the bill that we wrote, would follow the student to the education outcome source of the parent and child’s choice.”
Morrissey said she believes in parents choosing what school is best for their child but said the bill “takes money away from the public school system.” She said while it would not likely have a major impact on Forsyth County Schools, it could create problems in rural parts of the state.
“If you have 1,000 students at that school and you take away money from 100 of those students, that’s really going to hurt those poorer students even more than it does us,” she said. “I also believe in those poorer areas, they don’t have the good private schools. They don’t have the money there to pay the teachers the right salary.”
In another school matter, Morrissey said the school system would start the redistricting process this year in preparation of the opening of Poole’s Mill Elementary School in 2020. She said redistricting will be ongoing with the opening of new schools, including East Forsyth High School and Hendricks Middle School in 2021 and another elementary school in 2022.
Woodall, who announced earlier this year he would not run for re-election in 2020, was asked a couple of questions about health care and the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
While conservatives have pushed to repeal the law for years, Woodall said he felt the opportunity has passed for now.
“When President Obama was in the White House, there was no ability to change the Affordable Care Act. With Nancy Pelosi leading the House, there is no ability to change the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “We had a two-year window in which case we could change the Affordable Care Act. We moved it out of the House, and it failed in the Senate by one Republican vote.
“I don’t want to give you the easy story, that’s just where we are: there’s no bill that’s going to move through Congress and Nancy Pelosi’s House that is going to impact the Affordable Care Act in any way that people seeking more choice and opportunities are going to support.”
Woodall said while the act is not expected to be changed, there were other options being undertaken at the state and federal level, like association health plans, which allows some businesses to band together to access health insurance.
He also spoke against the Medicaid expansion proposals, saying that his uncle was a doctor in south Georgia and the only one in a six-county area that accepted Medicaid.
“[He said,] ‘Hand out all the Medicaid cards you want, but I don’t have more room in my waiting room, so don’t go pretend that you’re going to provide care for folks that you’re not,’” Woodall said.
It should come as no surprise that road projects and rules were among the questions asked by county residents.
One early question came up on the widening of Sharon Springs Road, which officials recently said would be completed this summer.
“We’re going to work really hard to get caught up [on roads,]” Brown said. “We went for a period of time where we got behind, and it doesn’t get behind overnight and isn’t going to get caught up overnight.”
Semanson also answered questions on two traffic control devices that get strong emotional reactions: roundabouts, which, based on the crowd’s reaction, seem to be growing in popularity, and yield signs, whose controversial placement at some parts of the county, which causes some drivers turning right to yield to those turning left.
Jones asked the crowd who supported the yield signs, and no hands went up.
“The fact of the matter is that this irregular placement of yield signs in our county which we are looking to reverse is confusing to the public, it creates accidents, it’s not how people were taught,” Semanson said.
Semanson said commissioners would discuss the signs at a work session next week.